13 March 08: 1,500 feet of Breaking News

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls; friends, Romans, countrymen; members of the press: meet American Commerce Center.

Your Philly Skyline is about to change. About to incur a growth spurt. About to shatter any notion of Philadelphian reservedness, about to take A New Day A New Way to a whole other level.

The spired skyscraper pictured above and below would like to reclaim for the Central Business District one of its biggest surface parking lots, the one profiled in Monday's Penny Postcard post.

Led by its president Garrett Miller, Walnut Street Capital (WSC) has had a vision of major mixed-use for the lot at 1800 Arch Street since it acquired it in October. It brought on world renowed architecture firm Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF) to craft that vision.

KPF is not only accustomed to Philadelphia, having recently designed the US Airways terminal at the airport and Huntsman Hall for the Wharton School of Business, but it is indeed well familiar with the very vicinity of 1800 Arch. As Center City watched its skyline be redefined in the 80s, KPF contributed Mellon Bank Center, which was originally to have been as tall as One Liberty Place, as well as Two Logan Square, One Logan Square and its adjacent Four Seasons Hotel. It's also worth mentioning that Gene Kohn, the Kohn of Kohn Pedersen Fox and chairman of the company, is from Philadelphia. He graduated from Penn in the 50s and cut his teeth working for Vincent Kling in the Penn Center 60s.

KPF also knows their way around the supertall. As we speak, their designs for new tallest buildings are under construction for skyscraper meccas Shanghai and Hong Kong, the Shanghai World Financial Center (1,588', 100 floors - Skyscraperpage) and International Commerce Center (1,608', 118 floors - Skyscraperpage), respectively.

Remember how Comcast Center -- one block away -- transformed the skyline? Well, brace yourself . . .

This is American Commerce Center.

The vitals: 26 story hotel, 473' to the garden accessible to hotel guests. 3-to-6 stories of street-accessible retail along Arch Street with a public garden facing the dome of the Arch Street Presbyterian Church, and another garden on the sixth floor, between Arch and Cuthbert and overlooking the one below. 63 story office tower, 1,210' to the lower portion of the roof, 1,500' to the top of the spire. All parking is underground, including dedicated bicycle parking. LEED gold.

Mayor Michael Nutter, via his Press Secretary Doug Oliver, believes that "it would be a spectacular addition to Philadelphia's skyline. Sustainability efforts and building green continue to be hallmarks of this Administration and the plans for this particular project are consistent with those goals."

If we've learned anything over the past five years of Philly's mini building boom, it's that the streetscape trumps all else when surveying a new building's contribution to the city.

Garrett Miller knew this going into concept: "it has to be engaging at the street level, or else it is a failure." The pedestrian fabric is as much a part of American Commerce Center (ACC) as is its height. Along 18th Street, following the natural direction of (vehicular) traffic, the pedestrian is greeted with a mini-plaza that will be home to a café and the three-story lobby of the hotel. At 19th & Arch, the main entrance of the office tower amplifies the corner by the tower's massing being sliced -- chamfered -- back from the street corner.

Make no mistake, though, the height is very much a part of ACC. That same chamfer is echoed as the tower rises, and at its top, it then angles again back to a large spire. Miller clarifies, "while the vision of the building is to engage the pedestrian -- to engage Philadelphia -- at the street level, we also want the tower to be a symbol of our collective aspiration and hope. We want it to be seen from far away, literally and figuratively."

Even in a questionable market, funding does not appear to present a problem, as Miller cites that partners have been established and that the lot was purchased with 100% equity. Put another way: construction could start whenever.

Where it becomes a little tricky is with the 125' blanket height limit which Fifth District Councilman Darrell Clarke enacted following the then-Barnes Tower controversy. The site is currently zoned C4, which does not have a height restriction, but with a large FAR (floor area ratio), ACC would need rezoning. Councilman Clarke declined comment on American Commerce Center for the time being.

Rob Stuart, president of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, feels that "the height is less important than how it meets the street," and in that regard, the developer has done his homework. "This is a very serious design, with a well qualified firm," Stuart continues, referring to KPF's track record.

For a site that has been a surface parking lot for nearly thirty years, a lot of thought and consideration has been paid to its redevelopment. So much so that it may prove a lot for some neighbors to handle. For this reason, Miller expects WSC to meet with neighbors to hear their concerns and to build a comfort level. Stuart appreciates the thought that has gone into ACC, but says "now we have to evaluate the impact such a large project will have on the neighborhood."

In fact, Mayor Nutter encourages it: "through a series of community forums, various stakeholder groups will have an opportunity to voice the concerns that they may have. We don't have a full picture of what that feedback will be, but concerns will be heard and appropriately handled."

It will be interesting to see how ACC is exemplified as LSNA and the City Planning Commission continue to develop their neighborhood master plan, which they're already in the middle of. While Logan Square contains elements of an 'urban village', it is also very much the Central Business District, which the Planning Commission sees as Arch Street to Market Street. Our skyline's current shape is no accident.

Because the LSNA-PCPC plan-in-progress is so complex, LSNA has a set of design principles to apply in the interim. Stuart says that WSC "has taken account of a number of our principles, notably the street level and sustainability."

The recently announced plans for the 12th & Market Girard Estate present an interesting juxtaposition when compared against ACC's plans, which are of equal endeavor. The Girard site will require not only massive amounts of demolition -- on top of the subway portion of the Market-Frankford El, no less -- but also the demolition of one of Philadelphia's oldest standing skyscrapers, the 1896 Stephen Girard Building by James H Windrim. At 1800 Arch, ACC has only a parking lot attendant's booth in its way.

* * *

It's very early in the process. A groundbreaking ballpark isn't even until summer 2009. But to weigh the siting, the favorable pedestrian experience, and the choice of an acclaimed (read: expensive) architect is to understand that American Commerce Center is a very serious proposal, a very serious statement about Philadelphia's sense of place.

Stay tuned.

For further reading:

American Commerce Center
Walnut Street Capital

All images courtesy of Walnut Street Capital and Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates.

–B Love